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IDOLATRY (ī-dŏl'a-trē, Gr. eidōlolatria). Idolatry in ancient times included two forms of departure from the true religion: the worship of false gods, whether by means of images or otherwise; and the worship of the Lord by means of images. All the nations surrounding ancient Israel were idolatrous, though their idolatry assumed different forms. The early Semites of Mesopotamia worshiped mountains, springs, trees, and blocks of stone—things in which the deity was supposed to be in some sense incarnate. A typical example of such wooden representations is the sacred pole or Asherah pole. This was the idol of Gideon’s clan; Gideon destroyed it (Judg.6.25-Judg.6.32). The religion of the Egyptians centered mostly about the veneration of the sun and of the Nile as sources of life. They also had a number of sacred animals: the bull, cow, cat, baboon, crocodile, etc. Some of the deities were represented with human bodies and animal heads. Among the Canaanites, religion took on a very barbarous character. The chief gods were personifications of life and fertility. The gods had no moral character whatsoever, and worship of them carried with it demoralizing practices, including child sacrifice, prostitution, and snake worship. Human and animal images of the deities were worshiped. When the Israelites conquered the land they were commanded to destroy these idols (Exod.23.24; Exod.34.13; Num.33.52; Deut.7.5).

The first clear case of idolatry in the Bible is the account of Rachel stealing her father’s teraphim, which were images of household gods (Gen.31.19). Such images were used in Babylonia. Without Jacob’s knowledge, Rachel stole them from Laban and carried them with her to Canaan. During their long sojourn in Egypt, the Israelites defiled themselves with the idols of the land (Josh.24.14; Ezek.20.7). Moses defied these gods by attacking their symbols in the plagues of Egypt (Num.33.4). In spite of the miracles of their redemption from Egypt, the Israelites insisted on having some visible shape with which to worship God; and at Sinai, while Moses was absent, they persuaded Aaron to make them a golden calf, an emblem of the productive power of nature with which they had become familiar in Egypt. The second commandment, forbidding people to make and bow down to images of any kind, was directed against idolatry (Exod.20.4-Exod.20.5; Deut.5.8-Deut.5.9). This sin seems to have been shunned until the period of the judges, when the nation was caught up in it again.

The whole of Judges tells of successive apostasies, judgments, and repentances. The narrative concerning Micah (Judg.17.1-Judg.17.13-Judg.18.1-Judg.18.31) is an illustration of how idolatry was often combined with outward worship of God. It is significant that Jonathan, a Levite and a grandson of Moses, assumed the office of priest to the images of Micah and that later he allowed himself to be persuaded by some Danites, who had stolen Micah’s idol, to go with them as the priest of their tribe. He became the first of a line of priests to officiate at the shrine of the stolen idols all the time that the tabernacle was at Shiloh.

The prophet Samuel persuaded the people to repent of their sin and to renounce idolatry; but in Solomon’s reign the king himself made compromises that affected disastrously the whole future of the kingdom. Solomon’s wives brought their own heathen gods with them and openly worshiped them. Rehoboam, Solomon’s son by an Ammonite mother, continued the worst features of his father’s idolatry (1Kgs.14.22-1Kgs.14.24). Jeroboam, first king of the northern kingdom, effected a great and permanent schism in the religion of Israel when he erected golden calves at Bethel and at Dan and had his people worship there instead of in Jerusalem. The kings who followed Jeroboam in the northern kingdom differed little from him. One of them, Ahab, to please his Zidonian queen Jezebel, built a temple and an altar to Baal in Samaria (1Kgs.16.31-1Kgs.16.33), while she put to death as many prophets of the Lord as she could find (1Kgs.18.4-1Kgs.18.13). Baal worship came to be identified with the kingdom of Israel, and no king ever rose up against it.

Things went somewhat better in the southern kingdom. Hezekiah restored the temple services, which had been abandoned during his father’s reign, but the change was only outward (2Chr.28.1-2Chr.28.27-2Chr.29.1-2Chr.29.36; Isa.29.13). Not long before the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylonia, Josiah made a final effort to bring about a purer worship, but it did not last (2Chr.34.1-2Chr.34.33). Not even the Captivity cured the Jews of their idolatrous tendencies. When Ezra went to Jerusalem from Babylon, he found to his dismay that many Jews had married foreign wives and that the land was filled with abominations (Ezra.9.11). More than two hundred years later, when Antiochus Epiphanes tried to eradicate Judaism and Hellenize the Jews, many of them obeyed his command to offer sacrifices to idols, although his action led to the Maccabean war.

In the ritual of idol worship the chief elements were: offering burnt sacrifices (2Kgs.5.17), burning incense in honor of the idol (1Kgs.11.8), pouring out libations (Isa.57.6), presenting tithes and the firstfruits of the land (Hos.2.8), kissing the idol (1Kgs.19.18), stretching out the hands to it in adoration, prostrating oneself before it, and sometimes cutting oneself with knives (1Kgs.18.26, 1Kgs.18.28). Some of these practices were analogous to the worship of the Lord.

For an Israelite, idolatry was the most heinous of crimes. In the OT the relation between God and his covenant people is often represented as a marriage bond (Isa.54.5; Jer.3.14), and the worship of false gods was regarded as religious harlotry. The penalty was death (Exod.22.20). To attempt to seduce others to false worship was a crime of equal enormity (Deut.13.6-Deut.13.10). The God of Israel was a jealous God who brooked no rivals.

In the NT, references to idolatry are understandably few. The Maccabean war resulted in the Jews becoming fanatically opposed to the crass idolatry of OT times. The Jews were never again tempted to worship images or gods other than the Lord. Jesus, however, warned that to make possessions central in life is also idolatry, and said, “You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt.6.24). Paul, in Rom.1.18-Rom.1.25, teaches that idolatry is not the first stage of religion, from which man by an evolutionary process emerges to monotheism, but it is the result of deliberate religious apostasy. When man sins against the light of nature and refuses to worship the Creator revealed by nature, God as a punishment withdraws the light, and man then descends into the shameful absurdities of idolatry. Christians in apostolic times, many of whom were converted from heathenism, are repeatedly warned in the letters of the NT to be on their guard against idolatry (e.g., 1Cor.5.10; Gal.5.20). The OT conception of idolatry is widened to include anything that leads to the dethronement of God from the heart, as, for example, covetousness (Eph.5.5; Col.3.5).

A special problem arose for Christians in connection with meat offered to idols (Acts.15.29; 1Cor.8.1-1Cor.8.13-1Cor.10.1-1Cor.10.33). Some of the meat sold in butcher shops had been bought from heathen temples. Should a Christian make careful inquiry about the meat he purchased, and would he countenance or indirectly support idolatry if he bought meat that had been offered to an idol? Or should a Christian invited to dinner by a friend ask before accepting the invitation whether he would be eating meat that had been offered to an idol? Many Christians had real qualms about eating such meat, while others, feeling themselves “strong” spiritually, were convinced that there was no harm in it at all. Paul does not take sides in the matter, but he urges against the latter that they should not be careless, for even though idols are nothing, they still are a tangible expression of demons who are back of them; and, moreover, Christians should never insist on their “rights,” if such insistence will cause the weak to stumble. They should be governed by the law of love. In the last book of the Bible the apostle John predicts a time of idolatrous apostasy in the last days, when the Beast and his image will be accorded divine honors (Rev.9.20; Rev.13.14).

Bibliography: W. R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites, 1927; E. Bevan, Holy Images, 1940; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament, 1962; T. C. Vriezen, The Religion of Ancient Israel, 1963; H. Ringgren, Israelite Religion, 1966; J. M. Sasson, The Worship of the Golden Calf, 1973.——SB

IDOLATRY (see 2. for chief Heb. words expressing various aspects of idolatry in the OT; in NT, εἰδωλολατρεία, from εἰ̂δος, G1626, that which strikes the eye, is exposed to view, the external appearance). In its broadest sense idolatry is the worship of idols or images.


Idolatry in ancient times.

Ancient man believed that the image was the dwelling place of a superhuman force or being, or was the deity itself. Idols were made of wood, stone, or clay, and sometimes of gold or silver. For the Hebrews, idolatry included the worship of anything other than Jehovah. Rabbinic writers considered idolaters as enemies of Israel. The Talmud says that the three cardinal sins were idolatry, unchastity, and bloodshed. Idolatry was given precedence because it implied a denial of revelation, thus shattering the entire basis of religion and ethics. In the NT, the term was extended to mean obsession with anything to the degree that it took the place of devotion to God.

Idolatry was the embodiment of human desire and thought. Idols, though made in many shapes and sizes, really represented the image of man, for they expressed his thoughts, desires, and purposes. Man’s pride caused him to trust in himself rather than in God, hence his idols were really expressions of self-worship (Isa 2:8-22). The Bible repeatedly depicts man as debasing himself when he worships that which he made with his own hands.

Idolatry has been practiced from primitive times. The ancient oriental world was thoroughly polytheistic. Everything that occurred, whether good or bad, was attributed to the gods; for life was not separated into religious and secular categories. Nature and its unexplained forces were prob. the earliest deities worshiped by primitive man. The sun, moon, stars, fire, and lightning were objects of worship; for man could not explain them, and they seemed more powerful than he.

The various gods of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan were known to the Israelites. Babylon exercised greater formative influence upon Heb. religion than either Egypt or Canaan. Even the father of Abraham worshiped other gods (Josh 24:2). Abraham must have been acquainted with the cult of the moon-god Sin. His contemporaries built impressive temples and ziggurats in honor of the moon-god. It is not inconceivable that Abraham himself was a worshiper of the Babylonian deities before God called him to leave his home and land. His willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac gives evidence that human sacrifice to the gods was not unknown to the patriarch. The ancient Sumerians believed that the universe was directed by a pantheon of gods, the chief ones being An, Ki, Enlil, and Enki, who controlled, respectively, heaven, earth, air, and water. The Mesopotamian pantheon was composed of more than 1,500 gods, some of the better known ones being Shamash, Marduk, Sin, and Ishtar. The fertility gods were esp. honored. Ishtar, goddess of love, descended to the underworld to seek her husband Tammuz. Nabu was the patron of science and learning. Nergal was the god of war and hunting.

Ancient Egyptian religion was polytheistic and complex. Though the chief gods were represented in human form, most of the numerous deities were depicted in animal form, such as the crocodile god Sobek and Anubis with the head of a jackal. There were cosmic deities, such as Re, the sun-god. Osiris (the patron of agriculture) and Isis (counterpart of Astarte) were associated with regeneration. There were triads of gods such as Osiris, Isis, and their son Horus. Hieroglyphic inscrs. on obelisks on the tombs give the impression that the Egyptians had thousands of deities. Every aspect of nature, animate and inanimate, was thought to be inhabited by a deity. There was even a merger of gods, such as Amon with Re. The ruler himself was considered to be the incarnation of a god; each one while living assumed the name Horus, the deity who avenged the death of Osiris.

Of particular interest for Biblical studies are the gods of the Canaanites because of the syncretism of Israelite religion with the Canaanite fertility cult. The fertility cults were common to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan, but exerted their strongest influence on the Israelites in Canaan. The chief Canaanite deities were El, the creator of the earth and controller of storms, and Ba’al (both symbolized by the bull as indicative of their procreative powers), and the fertility goddess Astarte (Biblical Ashtaroth). She was immensely popular at the temples, and prostitution was a legalized part of the cult. The consort of El was Asherah, the mother goddess (the symbol of fruitfulness). There were many other Canaanite deities, such as Melkart, Koshar (the Vulcan of the Canaanites), and Hauron, the shepherd god. Mot was the god of death and sterility.

The Canaanite religion was particularly dangerous for the Israelites because of its appeal to carnal human desires, esp. sexual. Ba’al and Astarte were associated with fornication and drunkenness. Sacred prostitution and various orgiastic rites characterized the religion. Amos charged that Hebrew participation in these rites profaned the name of God (Amos 2:7). Canaanite religion was a debasing form of paganism. Deuteronomy 7:4 and 20:18 warn against the dangers of Canaanite influence. Moses instructed the Israelites to destroy all the inhabitants of the land so that they would not be tempted to follow their gods (Deut 7:1-5). They were also instructed to destroy the high places, the wooden asherim, pillars, and graven images (12:2, 3), which were associated with the sexual aspects of Canaanite worship practices.

Idolatry in the OT.

The worship of idols was an abomination to the protagonists of Heb. monotheism. They condemned as “idolatry” the tendency of the people to adopt the local Canaanite cults. The OT emphasizes that the worst sin was to acknowledge other gods besides Jehovah and to make an image or likeness of the deity. The ban on images was a new concept in the ancient E, even producing a great struggle among the people of Israel, who continually returned to image worship.

A recurring theme in the OT is the ridicule heaped upon those who would make an idol with their hands and then bow down and worship it (Isa 44:9-20; Jer 10:2-10; Hos 8:5; 13:2; Hab 2:18). The OT also emphasizes the powerlessness of idols and the gods of the Canaanites. Gideon destroyed the altar of Ba’al, and his father mocked the irate worshipers (Judg 6:25-32). The image of Dagon fell on the ground before the ark of God (1 Sam 5). Elijah mocked the priests of Ba’al in the contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:27).

The extent to which the Hebrews participated in the grosser religious practices in pre-Mosaic times can only be a matter of conjecture. It is a safe assumption that the influence of other religions upon them was great.

The prohibition against idolatry found expression in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:4), which forbade the representation of God in any form. The commandment was not an attack on artists and sculptors, but on idolaters. To worship idols was to go a-whoring after other gods; therefore idolatry was described as adultery (Hos 1:2; 9:1, 10; Ezek 16:15-17; 23).

Jeroboam, who became ruler of the N tribes that seceded upon the death of Solomon, placed golden calves at Dan and Bethel so that the people would not desire to return to Jerusalem to worship (12:25-33). These calves were either images of the Canaanite deities or pedestals symbolizing their presence, as the Ark was the symbol of the presence of God. This act brought God’s wrath upon the house of Jeroboam (14:7-11). Matters were no better in Judah at this time. Idolatrous practices flourished there also, during the reign of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son (14:21-24). During the reign of Solomon’s grandson Asa, an “abominable image” for Asherah was destroyed, which had been set up by the queen mother Maacah (15:13).

A hundred years later, following a succession of kings who “walked in the way of Jeroboam,” Ahab came to the throne of Israel and established the cult of Ba’al of Sidon at Samaria under the influence of his Phoen. wife Jezebel (16:32). Elijah denounced Ahab and challenged the power of Ba’al (ch. 18). The principal struggle in which Elijah and Elisha were engaged was to see whether God or Ba’al would be acknowledged as God. Jehu, who succeeded the Omride dynasty, made an attempt to uproot Ba’alism by the wholesale destruction of the temple, priests, and worshipers of Ba’al (2 Kings 10:18-28) but was not wholly successful in stamping out idolatry, for he did not “turn from the sins of Jeroboam” (10:29-31).

Conditions were not much better in Judah as evidenced by the idolatrous practices when Hezekiah came to the throne. The people were worshiping the bronze serpent that Moses had made, so Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18:4). All the great reforms of Hezekiah were undone, however, by his successor Manasseh, whose idolatries are among the most shocking in all the OT (21:1-18). He revived Ba’al worship and built altars to astrological gods within the very Temple at Jerusalem. He offered his own son as a human sacrifice. An interesting reference to human sacrifice is found in Psalm 106 where the pagan influences upon Israel were denounced.

During the period of the Babylonian captivity, Nebuchadnezzar built a great image and demanded that the people worship it. The refusal of Daniel’s three friends to worship the image would have cost them their lives except for divine intervention (Dan 3).

In the postexilic period, Malachi, Ezra, and Nehemiah violently opposed marriages with foreigners that were taking place. They undoubtedly remembered that such alliances had been denounced in the past and had contributed to the introduction of idolatrous practices that eventually caused God to destroy the nation.

In the 2nd cent. b.c., the Seleucid rulers of Pal. attempted to revive the worship of local fertility gods and the Hel. deities. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 b.c.) issued an edict establishing one religion for all his subjects. He erected an altar to Zeus over the altar of burnt offering in the Temple at Jerusalem. He required the Jews to take part in the heathen festivals or be slain. His oppressive measures brought about the Maccabean revolt that resulted in a brief period of religious and political freedom for the Jews.

Idolatry in the NT.

Idolatry is not mentioned as frequently in the NT as in the OT. In the NT, idolatry includes the worship of any gods other than the living and true God. The Christian Church arose in a world given to idolatry, but also out of a Jewish background that maintained a stubborn protest against image worship.

Paul pictures the widespread idolatry of the pagan world (Rom 1:18-25). He observed that idol worship was so multifarious that the Athenians had even erected an altar to an unknown god (Acts 17:23). He never intimated an interpretation widely held today that idolatry represents a primitive phase of religious development. Paul considered it a perversion, a turning away from the knowledge of the true God. Paul called idolatry a work of the flesh (Gal 5:20), and warned the Christians to shun the worship of idols (1 Cor 10:14).

Why idolatry is condemned in the Bible.

Idolatry is vigorously condemned both in the OT and NT because it degrades both God and man. It denies the existence of the true God who created the world and mankind, and whose glory cannot be adequately captured in any tangible form. It is absurd that a person could carve an idol with his own hands and then be afraid of what he has made. Some religions claim that an image is an aid to worship, though not an object of worship. The danger of such reasoning is that two people may have a different idea of what the image signifies. One person may look upon it as a representation and void of value or power in itself, but another may regard it as the abode of the god and fraught with power, and therefore he will worship the image. A visible representation of the deity tends to restrict a person’s concept of God, for he will base his concept of God, consciously or unconsciously, upon the image or picture. Finally, man becomes like that which he worships (Hos 9:10). If his god is lifeless and cold, it can bring him no real hope or comfort. Only the true and living God can fulfill the hope of eternal life.


J. Robertson, The Early Religion of Israel, I (1892), 187-268; A. C. Knudson, The Religious Teaching of the Old Testament (1918), 108-114; W. R. Smith, The Religion of the Semites (1927); E. Bevan, Holy Images (1940); R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy, 2nd ed. (1950); I. Epstein, “Judaism,” EBr, XIII (1957), 166A; O. J. Baab, The Theology of the Old Testament (1959), 84-113; J. Gray, “Idolatry,” IDB, III (1962), 675-678; T. C. Vriezen, The Religion of Ancient Israel (1963), 22-78; T. W. Overholt, “The Falsehood of Idolatry,” JTS, XVI (1965), 1-12; H. Ringgren, Israelite Religion (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

The special enticements to idolatry as offered by these various cults were found in their deification of natural forces and their appeal to primitive human desires, especially the sexual; also through associations produced by intermarriage and through the appeal to patriotism, when the help of some cruel deity was sought in time of war. Baal and Astarte worship, which was especially attractive, was closely associated with fornication and drunkenness (Am 2:7,8; compare 1Ki 14:23 f), and also appealed greatly to magic and soothsaying (e.g. Isa 2:6; 3:2; 8:19).



Wm. Wake, A Discourse concerning the Nature of Idolatry, 1688; W.R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites; E.B. Tylor, Primitive Culture; J.G. Frazer, Golden Bough (3 vols); L.R. Farnell, Evolution of Religion, 1905; Baudissin, Studien zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte; Beathgen, Der Gott Israels u. die Gotter der Heiden, 1888.

Camden M. Cobern